Christians love to assert that the evidence leads them to believe that Jesus really was God, and that he was raised (supernaturally) from the dead. I’d like to take a look at this and investigate some other possibilities, one natural and one supernatural.
The main problem with supernatural explanations is that we have no way to confirm that any of them are right; We are, effectively, stuck with no reliable way to confirm supernatural causation. This leaves us in a little bit of an epistemic pickle when it comes to accepting the “Jesus is God” hypothesis, unless one makes some really big assumptions. One has to assume that God exists, that God has the power to raise Jesus, that God can incarnate itself as a human, that Jesus’ death can serve atonement for sins, and that God would want to do any of these things. None of these can be known.
Possible Supernatural Alternative
The first I’d like to examine the possibility that the movie Highlander is roughly true. For those unfamiliar, Highlander is a movie about a bunch of immortal warriors who battle it out to become the last of their race, and the winner gets the prize of enslaving humanity. Each of the warriors can only be killed through decapitation. Let’s ignore the bit about enslaving the human race, and just focus on the idea of immortal warriors who can only be killed by decapitation. If this is true then it’s quite possible Jesus actually understood that he was going to be killed, but that his body would magically recover. If he made predictions about his resurrection, it could be that these predictions were based on his understanding of his special physiology. Being put on the cross is of little concern because it’s unlikely that he’d die by decapitation.
The most obvious problem with this hypothesis is that we have no reason to believe that immortal alien warriors, who only die by decapitation, even exist. Even so, I would charge that we also don’t know that any gods exist, or that any gods can incarnate themselves into humans, making both supernatural hypotheses implausible. Until we actually have good reason to believe that either of these scenarios is even possible, what reason should we ever have to accept that they are possible, let alone plausible, explanations for the Easter story?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t accept that the supernatural exists, or that it has any causal power in our universe. Until somebody can actually establish this, I axiomatically rule out all supernatural explanations as being impossible, because the basis for them has not yet been established. If you can establish the “supernatural”, and show that it really does have the kinds of causal powers needed, I’d love to see you do this.
Possible Natural Alternative
I think there are lots of possible natural alternatives to the resurrection. I think all of them are reasonably implausible, but I do contend that many of them are vastly more likely than any supernatural explanation. Here’s one natural alternative I’d like to considered: Roman conspiracy.
Consider this. The Gospels tell us that Pilate could see no reason to find Jesus guilty. We also know, from other sources, that Pilate was terribly unsympathetic to the Jewish authorities, and would often do exactly the opposite of what they wanted. Consider this: What if Pilate actually offered Jesus a way to possibly live though his ordeal? Pilate has Jesus scourged, and put up on the cross, but the scourging was not too severe. Jesus is then put on the cross, and Pilate also ordered Jesus taken down early when Jesus feigns death. The soldiers may have been ordered to pull him down, put him in a cloth, and hand him over to the Jews. Jesus is then moved by cart to the tomb, by the Jewish authorities.
Darkness then comes along, and suddenly it’s the Sabbath. The Romans, not being Jewish, have no reason to obey the Sabbath and open up the tomb, and bring Jesus back to Pilate’s estate, where he is cleaned up, and given medical attention. After a day, on the Sunday Morning, Jesus is now instructed by Pilate to leave the country, and to never return under the threat of a long, and painful, execution. Jesus agrees with this demand, and plans to go east.
When Jesus leaves he passes by the tomb, and notices a woman who shows up to prepare his body. That woman is Mary Magdalene, who he greets, and tells her that he’s returned, but that he has to leave. She’s confused, scared, and doesn’t understand. She runs away to tell the other disciples. At this point Jesus leaves the country and is never seen again.
The disciples, having heard that Jesus was seen alive, are also very confused, and still distraught at the death of their friend. The travel to the tomb, and find that it’s now empty, but they understand that he was killed by the Romans. Shortly after this they begin having dreams, and other types of hallucinations, that Jesus is visiting them. In one of the dreams, several weeks, or even months, later, Jesus tells Peter that he’s been resurrected by God, and that Peter is to preach this message to everyone who will listen. Peter begins to preach that Jesus is the raised messiah. Other people, including the other disciples, begin having visions, dreams, and other hallucinations, that Jesus is visiting them. All the while Jesus, living in another country, has no idea what’s been happening. As time passes more and more legendary parts are added to the story, and it slowly changes until we have the gospel stories.
Now, I want to point out that I think this story is an extremely unlikely natural explanation for what happened. That said, I think it’s almost infinitely more probable than the idea that God, who we don’t know exists or even can raise people from the dead, is the explanation. It’s also extremely ad hoc, and we have no little reason to believe that Pilate would ever do such a thing. That said, if Pilate wanted to mess with the Jewish authorities, this might be a way to make it happen.
Now, please, tell me. What is it about this, and all other, naturalistic explanations, makes it so much more unlikely that the idea of an unknowable supernatural, all knowing, all powerful, immaterial, space-less, timeless, God becoming human to die for our sins is so much more likely? I really do have a hard time accepting that the Christian explanation is the best one.